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U.S. Senator Blasts Syria Truce Deal, Says Serves Putin's Purposes

U.S. Senator John McCain predicted Russia would press ahead with support for assault of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the city of Aleppo.

MUNICH, Germany -- U.S. Senator John McCain has sharply criticized an international agreement on a cessation of hostilities in Syria, calling it "diplomacy in the service of military aggression" by Russia.

McCain spoke on the final day of a prominent security conference in Munich on February 14, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and diplomats from other countries in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) reached the agreement early on February 12.

"I wish I could share the views of some of my friends who see this agreement as a potential breakthrough, but unfortunately, I do not," said McCain, a Republican critic of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The agreement, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed by telephone on February 14, calls for a cessation of hostilities to start in a week in Syria.

The White House said that Obama emphasized to the Russian leader the importance of Moscow playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria.

Western officials say most of Russia’s air strikes to date have targeted other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Western-backed groups.

McCain predicted Russia would use the cessation-of-hostilities deal to press ahead with support for the assault by government forces on Aleppo, a big city that it wants to take back from rebels .

"Let's be clear about what this agreement does: It permits the assault on Aleppo to continue for another week. It requires opposition groups to stop fighting, but it allows Russia to continue bombing terrorists -- which it insists is everyone, even civilians," McCain said.

"And if Russia or the Assad regime violates this agreement, what are the consequences? I don't see any," he said.

'Not Our Partner'

McCain said the agreement would help Putin achieve the goals of the bombing campaign he launched in Syria on September 30 and laid out his view of what those goals are.

"Mr. Putin is not interested in being our partner. He wants to shore up the Assad regime; he wants to establish Russia as a major power in the Middle East; he wants to use Syria as a live-fire exercise for Russia's modernizing military; he wants to turn Latakia Province into a military outpost from which to harden and enforce a Russian sphere of influence -- a new Kaliningrad or Crimea; and he wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project," he said.

"The only thing that has changed about Mr. Putin's ambitions is that his appetite is growing with the eating," McCain said.

McCain said the predictions of some U.S. officials that Russia would get stuck in a quagmire in Syria and have to "sue for peace," as he put it, appear far off the mark at this point.

"Instead, Russia has indiscriminately bombed civilians and moderate opposition groups for months with impunity," he said, adding that "U.S. intelligence leaders have stated publicly that Russia's intervention has stabilized the Assad regime and helped it get back on the offensive," he said. "And now...Syrian, Iranian, Hizballah, and Russian forces are accelerating their siege of Aleppo."

The head of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, Norbert Roettgen, also indicated he believes Russia will use the cessation of hostilities agreement to advance its goals in Syria.

"Russia is determined to create facts on the ground, and when they have accomplished this, then they will invite the West to fight a common enemy, this is IS," Roettgen, a senior ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said at the Munich Security Conference.

'We've Seen This Movie Before'

McCain said that Russia had also used negotiations and cease-fires to further its military aims in Ukraine, where Moscow has backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 9,000 people since April 2014 and forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula the same year.

"We've seen this movie before in Ukraine," he said. "Russia presses its advantage militarily, creates new facts on the ground, uses the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war, and then chooses when to resume fighting."

"This is diplomacy in the service of military aggression. And it's working because we are letting it," he said.

McCain also said that the cessation-of-hostilities agreement "commits the U.S. and Russian coordinate" actions in Syria, where the United States and allies have been targeting IS militants with air strikes since 2014.

The United States has so far refused Russian calls for coordination of their military activities in Syria beyond efforts to avoid incidents and accidents involving their forces, and it is unclear what was agreed upon in the cessation of hostilities deal.

Russia has portrayed closer military coordination as crucial. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested in Munich on February 13 that the agreement would not work if the United States refuses to coordinate more closely, in remarks that added to Western concerns about the chances of success.

The Kremlin said that in his conversation with Obama, Putin put particular stress on "the need to establish close working contacts between representatives of the defense ministries of Russia and the United States, which would allow for...a successful fight against IS and other terrorist organizations."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.